America at Gunpoint - WhoWhatWhy

America at Gunpoint

Stop Gun Violence, Trump, March for Our Lives
March for Our Lives poster “Stop Gun Violence” in Washington, DC, on March 24, 2018. Photo credit: Amaury Laporte / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)
Reading Time: 6 minutes

OPINION

Guns have always been with us. We have been a country of sharp-shooting homesteaders and pistol-packing mamas since the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth Rock. But is this violent history catching up with us? 

After four years of hatred and invective spewing forth directly from Trump’s Offal Office — excuse me, Oval Office — is our nation primed for further violence? We certainly witnessed plenty of it during the attempted coup at the Capitol on January 6. And bizarre events on the floor of the House of Representatives in recent days suggest that many ardent — and armed — Trump supporters are not going quietly into that good night.

Back in the day, guns were needed not only for safety but for sustenance. The killing of rabbits, pheasants, turkeys, ducks, deer, and moose, etc. was not a blood sport but serious business. But no longer. The drop in the number of the nation’s licensed hunters has even worried state wildlife managers, who depend upon hunters to thin the herds of deer enough to prevent them from being a safety hazard on country roads. The fig leaf of hunting as a cover for gun ownership can no longer mask the enormity of a national problem.

The majority of gun owners, who own just a few guns and are looking only to protect their nuclear families, have so little training or practice that they often end up hurting or killing themselves, their spouses, children, or bystanders rather than potential assailants. Then you have the militia-types who arm themselves against some imagined cataclysmic event. They tend to own dozens, or even hundreds, of guns, to say nothing of all manner of explosive devices. 

When you add up the effect of all of this firepower, you get over 43,000 gun deaths (including homicides, suicides, and accidents) in 2020 alone. That’s a staggering number. The highest yearly death total for American forces during the worst of the Vietnam War was 26,899 in 1968. We have gone way over that figure, without a war and without an enemy.

Those who amass gun arsenals — often current and retired military, former law enforcement officials, or members of self-proclaimed militias — have been growing their stockpiles for years. Some of these stashes are held by veterans of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars who have been trained as killers. Others are collected by self-taught bigots and racists who feed on conspiracy theories to fuel their hatred for perceived enemies. Their hoards of weapons are usually well hidden, as are their intentions, until they suddenly show themselves in the occasional mass shooting — the 2017 massacre in Las Vegas, in which 1,000 rounds of ammunition killed 60 concert goers; the 2017 First Baptist Church shooting in Southern Springs, TX, in which an Air Force veteran in tactical gear killed 26 worshippers; and the 2018 mass shooting at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, PA, that left 11 dead. The anti-semitic perpetrator in that case had 21 guns registered in his name.

This past year more of the militia types came out of the woodwork. In July, the Michigan state Capitol was taken over by men in combat gear brandishing long guns. The event was peaceful, but only because no law enforcement thought to offer opposition. They were all white men, after all. 

That was soon followed by a very real threat to kidnap the state’s governor. Far more threatening was the recent attempt at a domestic coup at the US Capitol building on January 6. Mercifully, the insurrectionists were apparently under instruction not to bring their guns. The bad news was that they still meant mayhem if not murder. One organizer and Oath Keeper wrote: “This kettle is set to boil.” A few carried guns anyway, and the rest brought along bear spray, nooses, bullet-proof vests, helmets, pipe bombs, and gas masks. One man in a Camp Pendleton hoodie wore a hat that read, “Make Politicians Afraid Again.” There were Swastikas and Confederate flags. 

The T-shirts told you what else you needed to know: “CIVIL WAR, January 6, 2021” read many; “Q-Anon”; “Camp Auschwitz”; “NSC-131” (a Neo-Nazi group); “6MWE” (six million Jews exterminated by the Germans in WW II weren’t enough); “Red Crusaders Crosses” (Christian wars against Jews and Muslims); and “PB” for Proud Boys. They chanted “Hang Mike Pence” and “Kill them all.” 

One can safely assume many of these racists, bigots, and seditionists had guns back home — probably lots of guns. What if they had been given the opposite signal by organizers over social media — bring your guns. The only factor that would have limited the number of deaths in that case was the curious fact that the Capitol was so poorly defended. The United States is literally sitting on a powder keg. 

Gun ownership has been rising steadily for years, and took an even sharper turn last year in the midst of the pandemic — some 40 percent of purchasers were first time buyers. What to make of this hoarding of weapons, which has been going on for decades? To state the obvious, guns age very well; they are often passed down from one generation to another in pristine condition; they seldom get lost; they don’t have expiration dates; they simply accumulate in ever larger and more frightening stockpiles. And more lethal. Of the estimated 90 million long guns in the country, between 5 and 10 million are now thought to be semi-automatic assault rifles, which is just one step down from a machine gun. 

The Other Epidemic: One Day of Gun Violence in the US

The threat of gun violence now seems to be metastasizing even among our elected representatives, at least on the right. Newly elected Republican Rep. Madison Cawthorn of North Carolina — who in December had urged his fellow conservatives to “lightly threaten” representatives who accepted the reality of Biden’s election — spoke at an early “Stop the Steal” rally on January 6, just three days after taking office. He proudly admitted to packing a pistol that day. Then he went into the Capitol to vote against confirming Biden’s electoral victory, apparently still packing. Speaking of the violent mob that swarmed the building that day, he shrugged: “Fortunately I was armed, so we would have been able to protect ourselves.” How nice.

Members of the House and Senate have long been permitted to wear firearms on the grounds of the Capitol, but not in chambers. That rule is now being seriously challenged. Several of our lawmakers seem to think of themselves more as lawbreakers. Not only did some of them help the insurrectionists in their plot to interrupt the counting of electoral votes, and not only did they recently cast votes for sedition, denying the will of the people in a free and fair election, but they are now attempting intimidation by bearing arms. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) was recently caught wearing a pistol as he sought to enter the House chamber. Blocked and turned back, Harris returned without his weapon. Neither he nor his aides offered an apology. Other Republicans have tried to simply bull their way around newly installed metal detectors.

The Hill, a go-to news site for politicians across the spectrum, recently quoted Rep. Jared Huffman (D-CA) on this new intransigence: “It is insane to rely on an honor system that could allow something really tragic to happen. And I would say it is just a matter of time before it does.” The Hill article goes on to quote Rep. Kathleen Rice (D-NY): “You can’t be afraid that the person you’re having a little argument with on the floor with C-SPAN watching is going to pull a gun and, like, shoot you.”

The words of Donald Trump during the January 6 rally still ring in the ear: “You don’t concede when there’s theft involved. Our country has had enough. We will not take it anymore.” No doubt Trump’s rally speech will figure prominently in his upcoming impeachment trial. Coming from a sitting president, those words were, if not seditious plain and simple, then certainly fighting words. 

Will his entire 2020 campaign of misinformation and belligerence inspire future violence? Certainly no one was willing to take that chance on Inauguration Day. An occasion that was designed to be a celebration was held under armed guard — a veritable lockdown within the existing pandemic lockdown — with Washington, DC, aswarm with National Guard troops from all 50 states. Garth Brooks sang a truly inspiring rendition of “Amazing Grace” that day, but he did so only in the midst of amazing security. Let’s hope the words he sung will yet prove true: “Through many dangers, toils and snares/ We have already come/ ‘Twas grace has brought us safe thus far/ And grace will lead us home.” To which one can only say, Praise the Lord, and please… please, don’t pass the ammunition.


Related front page panorama photo credit: Adapted by WhoWhatWhy from DoJ.

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